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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



Hector BERLIOZ (1803 – 1869)
Les Troyens (1856-9)
Cassandra/Dido - Deborah Polaski
Aeneas - Jon Villars
Choroebus - Russel Braun
Narbel - Robert Lloyd
Vienna State Opera Chorus and Slovak Philharmonic Choir
Orchestra de Paris and Salzburg Chamber Orchestra/Sylvain Cambreling
Stage Director - Herbert Wernicke
Director - Alexandre Tarta
Salzburg Festival Theatre, 2000
Format 19/9; PCM Stereo/Dolby 5.1
ARTHAUS MUSIK DVD 100 350 [2 DVDs: 237 minutes]

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Most people have not had the opportunity to see a performance of this giant work which is considered a masterpiece by many (but not by all!). Berlioz himself never saw the complete opera and staged performances are still very rare. Even today, the four hours opera is often split into two for performance purposes (for example the current ENO performances). Therefore the issue of DVDs of this full performance from the 2000 Salzburg Festival is very welcome even though there are controversial aspects.

Many of the difficulties of Les Troyens lie with Virgil who wrote this story of war, deception, passion and obsession on the largest scale. This works very well in literature but less well as an opera (operas work best with a fairly simple story). In this version written by Berlioz himself, much of the action takes place off-stage, and the characters talk about what has happened or will happen and it is difficult to present a staging which reflects the grand scale of the events described.

Herbert Wernicke in his staging uses a semi-circular whitewashed wall rent by a gash through which in turn, parts of the Trojan Horse, trees, sea etc can be observed. Contemporary costumes are worn; in Troy everyone wears black except for blood red gloves; in Carthage there are similar costumes but with royal blue gloves. Usually I prefer traditional stagings to such a ‘concept’ production; however I found myself won over by the generous sweep of this staging which reflected the importance of the events depicted. Some details however did grate such as the appearance of what looked like cheap plastic toy machine guns, and the symbolism of the red/blue gloves escaped me. On balance however I did like the distinctive cold beauty of this production. However, although I can understand the reason why it was done, I cannot accept the omission of the dance numbers (except of course the Royal Hunt and Storm, which contains the most famous music of the opera, and is included).

The American, Deborah Polaski is given the role of both Cassandra and Dido. Her performance and singing as Dido is the highlight of the performance, especially in the dramatic final scene where her wonderful voice depicted the tragedy of the events; unfortunately vocally she did not seem completely at home in the part of Cassandra.

The young American tenor Jon Villars plays the part of Aeneas and looks like an American Football player and his singing seldom rises above the workmanlike. The chorus and the other parts are all good, with Yvonne Naef’s Anna and Toby Spencer’s Hylas having outstanding vocal beauty.

Sylvain Cambreling is an experienced and fine conductor who gets expressive tone and good playing from the orchestra, although I cannot suppress the feeling that certain famous Berlioz conductors such as Beecham or Munch might have injected a little more feeling in places. The filming and presentation and sound recording of this two disc set is good, but the booklet is pretentious and undistinguished.

Overall I enjoyed this performance and expect to return to it often.

Arthur Baker



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